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I’m counting down all the movies released in 2012.  The ones I’ve seen, at any rate.  In what is unquestionably a timely manner.

#40.  Safe

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There’s something to be said for the consistent level of quality of Jason Statham films.  I don’t know even know what to compare this stretch of films to.  I mean, from The Transporter through Parker, I think I’d probably only rate Crank as a great movie, but pretty much all of them have been exactly what anyone would expect them to be.  And all of them are watchable.  Not sure Safe is particularly memorable or will ever be anyone’s favorite movie, but if you are in the mood for a Statham movie, you won’t be disappointed.

#39.  Fun Size

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I think it is just about impossible to talk about this movie without sounding like, or referring to, Brian, so I’m not going to try.  You know I typed that, and then pretty much anything I could think to type about Victoria Justice or Jane Levy sounded really really creepy.  So let’s just say that it takes all the suspension of disbelief I could muster to believe they weren’t part of the cool kids.  The movie is a pretty solid one crazy night movie, and the fact that it is geared toward the younger set doesn’t hurt it.  I think there probably was the chance to punch it up with more jokes, but I could also easily see that not being the fault of screenwriter Max Werner (or director Josh Schwartz) but instead a studio thing.  I don’t think it holds up out of context, but the Explaining Rap (remix) was one of the funnier things from a movie this year.

#38.  Take This Waltz

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I can see why this film isn’t for everyone.  Seth Rogen as a dramatic (or dramedic, really) lead takes some getting used to.  The movie is about the end of a…not dysfunctional relationship, but not well-functioning one.  It isn’t overly heavy on the drama or the comedy.  But it mostly works.  A lot of credit is due to Michelle Williams, sure, because she’s great like always.  The running gag about the shower is one of my favorite things from a movie this year.

#37.  The Grey

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I understand marketing this film as “Liam Neeson fights wolves.”  That’s certainly compelling, and pretty much got me to watch.  But it creates a misconception.  This movie isn’t Liam Neeson exacting revenge against all wolfkind for kidnapping his daughter.  Rather it is a deep, dark, philosophical musing on life and death.  Which was a pleasant surprise for me, but I could see some people being disappointed with the lack of wolfpunching.  This is a sneaky good movie.

#36.  Friends with Kids

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Written and directed by Jennifer Westfeldt, who is best known for Kissing Jessica Stein and for being with Jon Hamm.  Westfeldt also stars along with Adam Scott.  Ordinarily I’d say it is a little weird that Hamm has a supporting role in the film, but one gets the feeling that Jon Hamm maybe isn’t threatened by too many people.  Anyway, the film had plenty of charm, and a stellar cast which also includes Maya Rudolph, Chris O’Dowd, Megan Fox, and Edward Burns.

#35.  John Carter

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Taylor Kitsch is having the exact same luck in picking his movies that I’d expect Riggins to have.  The problems with the marketing have been well-documented, from the boring name to the massive reported budget to believing in a century-old property without any apparent built-in fanbase.  Thing is, if you can evaluate the movie on its own merits, it is pretty decent.  The major flaw is that the politics on Mars seems a little muddled, which drags down the plot.  But the movie is a lot of fun, with great visuals, solid acting (with a surprisingly deep supporting cast), and a generally interesting story.

#34.  Your Sister’s Sister

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A mumblecore movie I actually liked?  Having Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt as two of the leads certainly helped.  I can’t really figure out why this one clicked for me.  It basically had the plot of a romantic comedy, maybe that helped?

#33.  Goon

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The world needs more funny sports movies that have a lot of heart.  Seann William Scott acquits himself quite well as a super nice if slightly slow minor league hockey enforcer who isn’t so much good at the hockey part of the game, but can fight with the best of them.  The movie is chock full of funny bits with a surprisingly sweet center.  Co-writer Jay Baruchel seems to have a lot of fun with his supporting role, and Alison Pill is pretty great as the love interest.

#32.  Taken 2

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The thing about the recent spate of Luc Besson action flicks is that they are all seemingly pretty decent.  He’s spread himself across so many movies, and the audience for them is such that it would be understandable if some of the films suffered in quality.  But lo and behold, this movie is perfectly adequate.  Impressively, the writing crew manages to rehash the premise while still infusing some life into it.  The movie is self-recommending, I think.

#31.  Magic Mike

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I feel like I’m a little lower on this one than most people, but I’m not sure if that’s true or not.  Made a ton of money, and it kinda seems to me that every year people are surprised that a movie more aimed at women than men could rake in the dough.  I’m curious as to what Hollywood’s number-crunchers say, because it sure seems like no surprise lots of women go to movies.  At any rate, I thought the story probably could have used a little bit of work.  McConaughey was stellar, though it wasn’t the best role of the for year.  Actually, same goes for Channing Tatum.  We’ll get into this later, but I have to say, I have nothing but respect for Tatum.  His range is far wider than I might have thought.  And seems to really throw himself into roles, having a ton of fun in the process, which I think shows on screen.  Her small role here just adds to how Olivia Munn has been killing it recently.  I don’t know how to say this without it sounding like an insult, but I sorta think Alex Pettyfer has been slightly miscast in the four movies I’ve seen him in, though he’s been the best here.

Well this look at the successful performance showcases, the complement to my earlier look at the failed ones, is ridiculously late. But it’s been sitting on my hard drive for a while so why waste it? Plus many of these are now available on DVD so you can go judge them for yourselves. Though you may as well leave the judging to me, right?

Animal Kingdom

There was a good chance that this one was going to land on the “failed” portion of these posts, but happily Jacki Weaver eked out a Supporting Actress nod for this very low profile film. Animal Kingdom is an Australian crime drama centered around a family of bank robbers. The opening credits made me think I was about to see The Town: Down Under with its images of bank heists. Instead, it’s a character-focused drama about the family unraveling as the crooked cops close in.

Weaver plays the family matriarch. She’s outwardly sweet and caring, but in reality is chillingly ruthless. Her daughter dies of a heroin overdose so her estranged grandson comes to live with her. Meanwhile, her son is hiding out from the cops while the Melbourne police become more brutal with their tactics. The cops begin killing off members of the gang, the gang retaliates, and the heretofore innocent grandson gets entangled in it all.

The movie is very good. I think some people may find the grandson character frustrating as he waffles between his family and the police and seems to willfully put himself in danger. But I think the film does a good job establishing the character and his passiveness. Weaver is quite memorable. I think it’s a role ripe for scenery chewing, but she dials it back and it makes her actions even more chilling. Hopefully her nomination will cause more people to seek out the film.

Rabbit Hole

This story of a couple mourning their recently-deceased son works in parts. Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart grieve in their own ways, which drives a wedge into their relationship. Kidman is prone to awkward public outbursts that can be quite uncomfortable to watch. The film is filled with these scenes and it can be hard to take.

But some scenes are just wonderful. Most of the scenes Kidman shares with her mother, played by Dianne Weist, are terrific and insightful. Eckhart has a nice scene in his son’s bedroom with a family looking to buy the house.

The film is a series of mostly successful individual scenes while some overall plot points fall a little short. I found the relationship between Kidman and a young man sort of contrived, but it yielded several nice moments.

I think your mileage may vary in a heavily dramatic movie like this. What rings true or connects emotionally for one will feel wrong to another. And that is fine, considering the film is about people who express their grief differently.

Kidman is very good and she grabbed the film’s one Oscar nomination for Best Actress. I enjoyed Eckhart, and he did land an Independent Spirit nod, though a few of his showcase scenes didn’t work very well for me. How much was him and how much was the writing, I don’t know. Finally, Weist is also very good and it’s too bad awards momentum for her stalled so early.

It’s a good film that I would recommend, but given its weight I’m not sure if there are many people I’d specifically recommend it to.

Biutiful

We all severely despised this movie. Javier Bardem landed a Best Actor nod for his role as a Barcelona black marketeer who is severely down on his luck. His illegal immigrant workers get deported and he has the heart to care about their families. His own ex-wife is unreliable, leaving him to worry for his children’s safety. He is sick. His dreams are full of tiresome artsy fartsy imagery.

The film received some critical malign for being such a downer. I contend that to be a downer a film must make the viewer care enough to feel the depression and Biutiful fails miserably at that. I wasn’t saddened by Bardem’s slog. I was bored. Very, very bored.

It severely drags. I started looking out for the ending, constantly expecting for the finale to be right around the corner and pondering if I liked certain developments as the denouement. In hindsight it turns out I started doing this about 45 minutes in. That is a bad sign.

Blue Valentine

I anticipated this being up my alley but it started losing me pretty quickly. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are a married couple with a young daughter. The film starts with their relationship in trouble and watches as it crumbles. Interspersed are flashbacks showing them meeting and falling in love.

It reminded me a lot of Revolutionary Road from a few years back. It could be a poignant look at the strains that are put on a relationship, but it’s really just about two people that shouldn’t be together. And at least one is a douchebag. It becomes pretty clear that there isn’t a lot of depth to their relationship and I began rooting against the pair because it seemed like they’d both be better off alone. By the end it was just tedious.

Williams got a Best Actress nomination but it’s surprising that Gosling was barely even in the picture. He didn’t even score any recognition from the Independent Spirits. Maybe the field for Best Actor was just more competitive. But I have a hard time imagining someone responding the movie and Williams’s performance but not Gosling’s.

Another Year

This one isn’t a successful performance piece but at least it did get some Oscar attention, receiving an Original Screenplay nod. Lesley Manville really should have been in the mix for Supporting Actress, but at least she was a contender.

My colleagues liked Another Year considerably less than I did and I understand why. It’s slow with a very understated plot. But it’s all in service of its themes. I’m not sure why, but I’m drawn towards films about the passage of time and the transient nature of lives in this permanent world and Another Year has these in spades. Four segments corresponding to each of the seasons follow English married couple Tom and Gerri as they host family and friends at parties and events over the course of a year. They are in love and appear to have a happy life, but the same cannot be said about everyone else in their coterie. Manville stands out as Gerri’s lonely middle aged coworker who drinks too much at the get-togethers and fancies her hosts’ much younger son.

The film does sacrifice plot for theme. In fact, it would be hard to claim there’s much of a plot at all as the action is all conversation. We do see the characters’ progression throughout the year though much of the action occurs between the seasonal meetings. Mary’s excitement to buy a car and subsequent troubles with said car later in the year is one more light-hearted example.

The slowness did get to me a little as some of the scenes aren’t the best at advancing the themes. I’m happy to accept subtlety when warranted, but sitting through some of the scenes that seemed pointless to me was harder to stomach. With a little tightening it could be more entertaining and packed a heftier punch.

The Oscars are less than a week away and we’re taking a look at all the categories we care to. Today it’s Actress.

  • Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
  • Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
  • Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
  • Natalie Portman, Black Swan
  • Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

John:

This is the most unflattering image I could find. I hate you, Natalie Portman.

Two ladies compete for my pick here, but truthfully none of them blow me away. Williams and Kidman are both good, though undermined by some weak material. It’s hard for me to tell what doesn’t push me over the top for Williams. I think the film isn’t successful enough to make her performance connect with me. And Kidman has to deal with a bunch of phony scenes so it kind of feels like she’s Acting Very Hard.

Bening is terrific in a role that takes some range: caring wife/mom, icy household leader, betrayed spouse. But Lawrence and Portman lead for me. I’m glad Lawrence got in; it seemed like her star was falling by nomination time. She’s delightful with her tough, stubborn façade that only occasionally cracks to reveal the unsure teenager she actually is. And at this moment I’ll choose Portman, though maybe I’ll go back and forth a few times. What can I say, she’s fierce! And I think the over-the-top scenery chewing is kept at the right level.

Snubs: My dream ballot would include Hilary Swank for Conviction and Sally Hawkins for Made In Dagenham, both discussed here.

Jared:

I’ll echo the sentiments of every other Oscar-watcher out there and say this year was and extremely strong one for leading ladies.  Honestly, the next five actresses on the list would likely stack up favorably to most other years.

Jennifer Lawrence would probably be the first out of my top five, though I’m certainly not upset she’s here.  I guess I think people are confusing their admiration for her character with their admiration for her a little.  A young, attractive woman struggling to take care of her family against all manners of hardships?  Yeah, that’s a trope the Academy eats up.  That said, she did a very fine job, and I look forward to seeing what she takes on in the future.

Annette Bening is being pipped by some as an upset pick to take home the trophy Sunday night.  In my mind that would be a (deserved) career achievement win.  Something the Academy has <sarcasm> never ever been known to do </saracasm>.  She’s clearly very good in this role, but I’d look to her turn in Mother and Child as the performance that should have been nominated.  To be sure, at times it is hard to separate the character as written from the actor’s performance, but I just didn’t get enough there.  Maybe I needed to see an Oscar Scene (TM).

In Rabbit Hole, Nicole Kidman broke her nearly decade long streak of appearing in forgettable movies.  The tough thing about her character, I think, is that she had to tiptoe such a fine line to retain some of the audience’s sympathy, but almost as little as possible, since her character was so frequently lashing out in an effort to bring some sense of normalcy back into her world.  While she obviously benefited from being a big name (since really, how many people actually saw this film?), Kidman’s nomination was certainly a valid choice.

After The Baxter (and OK, sure, The Station Agent), I’m wholeheartedly in the tank for Michelle Williams.  A sentiment not shared by all of my fellow Grouches.  I didn’t love Blue Valentine because I think the script failed to make me care about the couple.  But I almost shudder to think what the film would have been like in lesser hands.  Perhaps the thing I most like about Williams is that her characters never feel like caricatures.  It is really difficult to describe any of the in a word or two, because they feel like such normal people.

And the second most unfortunate. Damn, she's pretty.

Natalie Portman is dead to me.  Maybe I shouldn’t be so harsh.  I guess I could have been a little more aggressive in pursuing her.  It was actually a little surprising how much of the internet blew up when the news was announced.  She could have had her pick of any nerd out there and she goes with a ballerina?  Anyway, if she weren’t dead to me, I’d probably say that in a year of strong performances, I’m not sure it is particularly close among these nominees.  The role required such range and such ability.  And she pulled it off magnificently.  Black Swan really wasn’t all that special, in my opinion, but a good chunk of the reason it is doing so well is squarely on the shoulders of Portman, who has carried the film on the back of her memorable performance.

Adam:

Is completely unoriginal and also picked Natalie Portman.

Oscar nominees are announced on the 25th.  Yay!  So let’s summarize what we (the royal we, at least) know.  Keeping in mind, of course, that when it comes to the Academy, no one knows anything.  Especially me.  This time: Best Actress.

VIRTUAL LOCKS

  • Natalie Portman, Black Swan
  • Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
  • Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone

I remember the good ol’ days when I could talk about Portman‘s riveting  and undeniably Oscar-worthyperformance of a ballerina in a yin-yang struggle for perfection.  Too bad she’s dead to me now.  I’ll be honest, I don’t quite see why Bening should be nominated for her portrayal of a lesbian Mama Bear protecting her cubs, but she appears to be in a two horse race for the statue.  Don’t get me wrong, that’s not a slight on the actress (I would probably give a nomination this year for Mother and Child), probably more a reflection that everyone else in the world seems to see something in the film that I don’t.  I’m also maybe a little bit lower on Lawrence than others, but that may be more due to my issues with the script and my belief that people have just zeroed in on the concept of a backwoods girl struggling to keep her family afloat than looking at the actual movie itself.

LIKELY IN

  • Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole

I haven’t seen any prognosticators leave Kidman out of the final five, but her place just feels a little shakier to me than the others.  Maybe it is because I’m not really sure Rabbit Hole has registered with voters. Or me, I guess, because I haven’t felt like being mortally depressed for two hours yet.

LAST ONE IN

  • Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right

The last spot in this category is huge crapshoot.  I changed my pick a few times before settling on four-time Oscar nominee Moore, who I think gave a more memorable performance than Bening.  John bemoaned the traditional Oscar wave of films the Academy loves racking up nomination after nomination, but it does seem like it will happen again and seems as good a reason as any to pick someone for this slot.

FIRST ALTERNATES

  • Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine
  • Lesley Manville, Another Year
  • Hilary Swank, Conviction
  • Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

Yeah, there’s a lot of them, but I don’t think anyone would really be surprised should any of these four women pull down the last nomination.  Michelle Williams stole my heart in The Baxter, so I’m probably rooting for her here.  Mike Leigh has a well-established history of getting his actresses Oscar noms, so Manville has a great shot even if she may be the least recognizable name on the list.  I’m really hoping I don’t have to see Conviction, which probably means that Swank should be the leading contender here.  We’ve discussed Steinfeld‘s category fraud, we’ll just have to wait and see if she ends up the category she should be in, the category she’ll win, or if the confusion made her miss in both.

DARK HORSES

  • Noomi Rapace, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  • Tilda Swinton, I Am Love

Rapace has been mentioned on enough lists that maybe she’s a bit more than a dark horse, in a weaker year she might have been able to break through.  A bunch of people are obsessed with I Am Love, the film clearly isn’t my cup of tea, but Swinton turns in her usual solid performance.

SHOULDA BEEN A CONTENDER

Emma Stone, Easy A (duh)
Naomi Watts, Mother and Child
Patricia Clarkson, Cairo Time

August 2017
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